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Dec. 2 2009 - 4:37 pm | 360 views | 1 recommendation | 6 comments

Beverly Hills Battle for Evolution (Against Intelligent Design)

Shermer & Prothero, Slayers of Creationist Dragons

Shermer & Prothero, Slayers of Creationist Dragons

On Monday, November 30, 2009, Donald Prothero and I teamed up against Intelligent Design proponents Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg. The topic was, “Has Evolutionary Theory Adequately Explained the Origins of Life?” for which we were to take the affirmative. The problem, of course, is that evolutionary theory primarily deals with how life changes, not how it originated in the first place. No matter, because in the entire 25 minutes allotted for Meyer and Sternberg, they never once even mentioned the origin of life, and instead attacked “neo-Darwinism,” population genetics, rates of mutation, etc., none of which has anything whatsoever to do with the origins of life. By contrast, Don devoted his 15 minutes to instructing the audience on where the science of life’s origins is today, basically covering his 15-week college course in one minute per week’s worth of material. There really is that much science—much more actually—to what we know about the origin of life. (You can read Don’s account here.)

For my part, I took just 8 minutes to make two points: (1) the religious agenda of Intelligent Design creationists calls into question their motives, and (2) regardless of their religious beliefs, the flaws in their arguments doom their program. I noted that my friend Francis Collins, who was the Director of the Human Genome Project and is now head of the National Institutes of Health, is a born-again evangelical Christian who fully accepts all of evolutionary theory and has never been discriminated against for his religious views because he practices good science (which puts the lie to the claim by IDers that they are not given a hearing because of their religious beliefs).

Unbelievably, Meyer opened by accusing us of dodging the debate question! He then announced that he was not there to defend intelligent design theory, he would not speculate on how he thinks life came about, or offer anything affirming his beliefs on the matter whatsoever. What? Please don’t tell me, Stephen, that you and Sternberg flew thousands of miles to get here, that these people paid $20 each to be here, that you have a brand new 600-page book subtitled “The Evidence for Intelligent Design” that they are selling in the lobby, but that you have no intention of telling us how you think life arose and became so complex? Really? Because inquiring minds want to know!

This is what bothers me about creationists more than anything else—the duplicity and game playing. “Oh, we have no opinion whatsoever on the matter of who or what the intelligence, designer, or creator is that generated life on Earth. No Sir-ee, we just have a couple of questions about that Darwinism stuff everyone is on about, but we don’t really know what happened.” Bullshit! Quit the lying guys. Stop playing word games and just put it out there for everyone to see. Francis Collins had the courage of his convictions, why don’t you? Follow the wisdom of your savior, Jesus: “Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? and not to be set on a candlestick?” (Mark 4:21)

I then read a passage from Meyer’s new book (Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence of Intelligent Design, HarperOne, 2009, p. 443):

“The evidence of intelligent design in biology does not prove the God exists (or that a being with all of the attributes of a transcendent God exists), since it is at least logically possible that an immanent (within the universe) intelligence rather than a transcendent intelligence might have designed life. Nevertheless, insofar as a transcendent God (as conceived by theists) does possess conscious awareness and intelligence, it possesses the causal powers necessary to produce (and explain the origin of) specified biological information. Thus, the activity of a theistic God could provide an adequate explanation of the evidence of intelligent design in biology, though other entities could conceivably do so as well.”

I then made the point that the creator of life on earth could be extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs) from a planet circling the star Vega, and if we found, say, a pod buried out in the desert with the Vegan’s blueprint for creating life, we would then know the origin of life on Earth. But that would not answer the question of life’s origin in general, because we would naturally want to know where the Vegans came from. And if we discovered that the Vegans were designed by an ETI from the Andromeda galaxy, we would be curious to know where the Andromedans came from, ad infinitum. At some point, we will need a bottom-up natural explanation for the origins of life in the first place, and if you do not posit such a theory the only alternative is a nonscientific, theological, or religious explanation involving a supernatural being who steps into our universe to stir up the particles to create life.

The problem here is that before you say something is out of this world, first make sure it is not in this world. That is, before Intelligent Design theorists turn to supernatural forces operating outside of this world, they must first demonstrate that the known forces operating in this world cannot account for the complexity and diversity of life. But as such the science of the origins of life is still relatively new—barely half a century old (compared to astronomy and chemistry that are now half a millennia old)—and we have only a rudimentary understanding of what the world was like 4 billion years ago. So we need to keep working at it.

This process in science is called Methodological Naturalism, or no miracles allowed. No God of the Gaps. By contrast, every ID argument goes like this:

  1. X looks designed
  2. I can’t think of how X was designed naturally
  3. Therefore X was designed supernaturally

In Darwin’s time X was the eye or the wing. In the 1990s X was the bacteria flagellum or the blood clotting sequence. Today X is DNA and cellular processes. The X changes, but the syllogism remains the same. The problem is this: There is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is only the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain. As soon as phenomena once believed to be supernatural or paranormal are explained, they then become part of the natural or normal world.

Here is the crux of the problem for the IDers: at some point they have to invoke a force operating outside of the natural world, and as soon as they do so they are no longer practicing science. The reason is that science is something you do, and there is nothing to do with supernatural explanations.


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  1. collapse expand

    it seems to me that religion precedes all scientific endeavor. i think it goes something like this. a devout man says “god made the universe so.” and a scientific man responds, “how?”

    intelligent design has it backwards. its proponents try to answer the latter with the former and expect a satisfying result.

    if god designed life, how did he do it? this is where science begins and where religion fails.

  2. collapse expand

    The argument for evolution has the following structure.

    1. X looks designed.
    2. Only natural explanations are allowed.
    3. Therefore X is explained by the Darwinian mechanism.

    “The problem here is that before you say something is out of this world, first make sure it is not in this world.”

    If I may paraphrase:

    The problem is that before you say that Darwin’s theory of evolution accounts for the origination of new and diverse body plans make sure that you can demonstrate it.

    As a layman I have yet to see an evolutionary scientist explain the reasoning that takes us from the evidence for evolution (fossil record, genetic similarities, etc.) to the conclusion that undirected processes and natural selection can do the job.

    Dr. Meyer in “Signature in the Cell” goes through the step-by-step reasoning for the design inference. It is certainly not an argument from ignorance. It is a valid inference based on what we know natural processes can do. And an inference is not a hard and fast conclusion. If it ever can be demonstrated that undirected, natural processes can do the job, then the inference will absolutely break down. And true science will proceed!

    Where is there a similar step-by-step series of statements for the inference that evolution can do the job?

    I would say the burden of proof is on the evolutionary scientist. He is the one proposing a mechanism not known to be able to build the complexity seen in living systems.

    The evolutionary process cannot even be demonstrated in an evolutionary algorithm. Information must always be added in by the programmer in one way or another for the algorithm to work.

    “Here is the crux of the problem for the IDers: at some point they have to invoke a force operating outside of the natural world, and as soon as they do so they are no longer practicing science. The reason is that science is something you do…”

    I don’t view science as a make-work program. I view science as that enterprise that seeks to develop truth statements about our natural world. By ruling out a priori an explanation about the natural world that may be true, that is not doing science either. Science cannot then claim that what is left is true.

    Furthermore, let’s assume for the moment that the design inference is accepted as the best explanation. There is still plenty of work remaining to discover how living organisms are engineered, is there not? How are proteins organized into tissues? How are tissues organized into organs? How are organs and tissues organized into body structures?

  3. collapse expand

    “The problem here is that before you say something is out of this world, first make sure it is not in this world.”

    Presumably you would accept SETI as a valid scientific enterprise. Also, I presume you would accept the premise that observation of data found in nature — the signal from outer space — can lead to a design inference.

    The intelligence from that other world far, far away(and that intelligence is certainly out of this world)is no more observable than the intelligence that may be inferred from observations in biology.

    Because you assume that the intelligence found in biology is supernatural, you discount the science behind the observation. Either the science for infering intelligence from an observation in nature is valid or it isn’t.

    The existence of the intelligence is inferred from the evidence. In fact if I were to propose the “trickster God” as the one who sent the intelligent signal from outer space, you would not be able to tell the difference between that signal and one sent by a biological intelligence.

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    About Me

    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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